Among the silliest public notices that I have ever read is at the exit to the present exhibition of Diego Rivera murals at the Museum of Modern Art. It says: “Occupancy by more than 798 persons is dangerous and unlawful.”
This notice raised many interesting questions. At whom was it directed? At the administrators of MOMA? In which case, why the need for public display? The administrators, however, did not appear to have been making strenuous efforts to estimate, let alone keep count of, the numbers of “occupants,” so perhaps it was the responsibility of the visitors themselves to ensure that they numbered no more than 798. If this was so, which among them in excess of 798, if any, were the guilty parties, the culpable breakers of the law? The first in, or the last out? Or was the responsibility collective?
By what chain of Gogolian absurdity could such a notice have been displayed, claiming that 798 persons were safe in the gallery but 799 were not? Did no one responsible protest against such ludicrously bogus exactitude? Or are we now so accustomed to obeying orders that the divorce between what we do and what we think and believe is complete?
A world without absurdity would, I suppose, be a rather dull one; and just as, in the opinion of the great sociologist Émile Durk-
heim, society needs its criminals to promote moral solidarity among the law-abiding, so perhaps we need absurdity to help us draw the lines of sense. But exactly how much absurdity do we need in order to be able to discern sense?
The Diego Rivera exhibition marks the eightieth anniversary of his first show at MOMA in 1930 and 1931. He was only the second living artist to be favored by the Museum with a monographic exhibition (the first being Matisse), and, as he was then known mainly as a muralist, the Museum commissioned him to produce several portable murals on steel frames for the occasion. He painted eight: four of them more or less are reproductions of the historico-political murals he had already painted in Mexican locations, one that depicted the suppression of a popular protest in contemporary Mexico, and three that reflected his response to New York. After the exhibition the murals were dispersed, except for Agrarian Leader Zapata, which was purchased by the Museum. These murals are reunited for the first time in eighty years with the exception of one, of which only the preliminary sketches are on display because the curators do not know the whereabouts of the mural itself.
When I visited, there were two groups of schoolchildren, about ten years old, who sat cross-legged on the floor in front of two of the murals, Agrarian Leader Zapata and Liberation of the Peon. One group of children was entirely black, the other black and Hispanic; they were both lively and beautifully behaved. Their teachers, white women in their late thirties, were intelligent, affectionate, patient, and authoritative—just the kind of teachers I wish I had had at these children’s age. The children were so deeply absorbed both in the pictures themselves, and in what the teachers said and asked, that they did not notice me.
The first words of a teacher that I overheard startled me. The children were sitting in front of Agrarian Leader Zapata. “This picture,” she said, “is not about violence. It is about justice.”
The picture shows Zapata holding the bit of a white horse in his left hand, with a machete hanging down from his right. The curve of the machete is faintly stained with blood; underneath the legs of the horse lies a dead bearded man in a brown costume, his sword lain out along his outstretched arm. Zapata has killed the man.
The teacher was right that the picture was not about violence, if she meant a salacious wallowing in gore for its own sake. The picture is not gory; if anything, it is rather reticent about the mechanism of death, the dead man having no injury about him. Indeed, his death is sanitized, and for an obvious reason, confirmed by the recent killing of Colonel Gaddafi: the modern sensibility is such that the unvarnished depiction of a violent death is apt to rouse sympathy for the killed, irrespective of his moral qualities. And this, I think, is right. One cannot say that Colonel Gaddafi’s death was unjust, in that he had done nothing to deserve it—indeed, it is difficult to conceive of a punishment so horrible that he would not have merited it. But we are nonetheless repelled by it, not because of an injustice done, but in the name of humanity and civilization. Justice has its claims, but they are not absolute.
The teacher was not right, however, that the picture was about justice. It is unlikely that the teacher would have stood in front of a picture of an execution—a hanging, say, after a trial—and have said, in a neutral and factual tone, “This picture is not about violence. It is about justice.” Rivera’s picture is neither about violence nor about justice: it is about justice supposedly brought about by political violence. And the teacher clearly implied that whatever had transpired—she did not deny that the man underneath the horse was dead—the cause of justice had been served, for she continued, “Who is the man under the horse?” The children hummed and hawed a bit, and one offered that he was a soldier. “He is a landowner,” said the teacher. “The peasants have killed him to get justice, to get their land back.”
This version of Mexican history was schematic, to say the least, but history taught to ten year olds must, out of necessity, be schematic. The point about this particular schema is that it was clearly preparatory for a life of resentment, in which history serves as the retrospective projection of current discontents, social and personal, and the world is divided into the one percent and the rest.
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